Macromemetics

Macromemetics

Abstract
1. Introduction and Summary
2. Western Philosophy Divided
3. The Hierarchical Structure of the Meme Pool and Popper"s World 3
3.1 Meme pools and the total cultural apparatus of societies
4. The Cultural Evolutionary School of Social Anthropology
4.1 Evolutionary Analysis of Civilisations
5. Memetics and 20th Century Philosophy
5.1 Memes and Pragmatism
5.2 Popper and Evolutionary Epistemology
5.3 Saussure and Signifiers
5.4 Foucault and the Episteme
6. Conclusion: The Role of Memetics
References

Anthropology tends to deal with indigenous peoples who have no written history. Where written records are available, the historian takes over. Some historians have seen patterns in the rise and fall of civilisations that are interpretable in memetic evolutionary terms. The most prominent exponents of this approach have been Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) and Arnold Toynbee (1889-1976). Toynbee’s vocabulary is explicitly biological, with words like `species‘, `genus‘ and `mutation‘ regularly utilised, albeit in a somewhat loose manner. If a civilisation can be seen as analogous to a large, sophisticated meme pool, then, like the gene pools of biological species, civilisations may speciate, evolve directionally in response to selection, or go extinct. Toynbee [45] identified 34 civilisations of which he regarded 15 as being still in existence. It is notable that Toynbee gives a great deal of prominence to ideology as a defining characteristic, thus suggesting strong parallels between his definition of separate civilisations and the concept of the meme pool. The lifetime of civilisations may be short – for instance the Minoan civilisation of Crete only lasted about 6 centuries from 2000 BCE to 1400 BCE – or very long – such as the Mayan civilisation of the Yucatan which may have lasted as long as 43 centuries from about 2500 BCE to its final destruction by the Spanish in 1680 CE. Just as no species is immortal, so it appears that civilisations also have a finite lifetime, after which memetic resources are exhausted and, if no `speciation’ has taken place, extinction is the result. A more sudden extinction may be the consequence of a genocidal obliteration of meme pools by rival civilisations.
As far as `speciation‘ is concerned, Toynbee regarded some civilisations as derivatives of others. For instance, he posited that the Sumeric civilisation of the Euphrates-Tigris Delta gave rise to the Babylonic civilisation between 1700 and 1500 BCE. The Babylonic civilisation was abruptly terminated in 538 BCE at the destruction of Babylon by the Medes and Persians. However, the meme pool of Babylonic civilisation left a potent memetic residue in the form of astrology, which survives to a certain extent even today (much to the dismay of scientists). An earlier offshoot of the Sumeric civilisation was the Indic civilisation of northern India which survived until the end of the Gupta Empire around 475 CE. Toynbee regarded later Indian civilisation as being sufficiently different from the Indic to constitute a different civilisation which he termed Hindu, and which survives today. There is therefore a limited memetic continuity between the modern Indian meme pool and Sumeric ancestors. The modern Western meme pool developed in Europe in the Dark Ages, but is an offshoot of the Hellenic civilisation which included the Roman Empire and began in Greece and the Aegean around 1300 BCE. The predecessor of the Hellenic civilisation was the Minoan which originated in Crete around 2000 BCE. The Minoan meme pool is thus the ultimate ancestor of our own.
Speciation and extinction, since they are often definite historical events, are easier to identify than directional evolution under selection. Perhaps the high rate of technological development in Western society since the mid-18th century can be seen as such a directional evolution, where the selective pressure is the economic and political power associated with new technology (Hull [20]). Another example may be the progressive elaboration of an immensely complicated calendar by the Mayan civilisation where the selective pressure was the social power and status associated with accurate ability to predict eclipses and other astronomical events. Notice that the selective pressure posited in these cases is associated with power of one sort or another accruing in the hands of elites (priests, scientists) who are capable of generating novel memes or combinations of memes. This is perhaps the easiest answer but not necessarily the only one. Alternatives are suggested by Benzon [3], and in the work of the 19th century American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce, who will be dealt with at greater length below.
Toynbee’s system suggests that there may be reasonable grounds for placing meme pools at the species level in the gene-meme analogy. Of course one may have some doubts about his interpretation of various details, and many would dispute his diffusionist tendencies (see above), but the general picture he paints, of lines of descent, extinctions and speciations, is highly compatible with a view that treats meme pools as equivalent to species. However, as briefly mentioned previously, meme pools are rarely totally isolated. Toynbee may see the Minoan meme pool as the ultimate ancestor of the Western, but it is arguable that Middle Eastern memes constitute a strong component of the Western meme pool through the influence of Judaism on Christianity. There could be no biological equivalent of this extensive meme flow from one species-level entity to another (except in a bacterial system with extensive horizontal transmission (Speel [42]).
Pursuing this line of analogy just a little further, we might also speculate that, just as small gene pools are more likely to disappear than large ones, small societies are often the most vulnerable to memetic extinction. What is the necessary size of the meme pool to maintain cultural viability? The Tikopia, for instance, subjects of a classic anthropological study by Raymond Firth in the 1920s (Leach [24] p. 27), were a population of about 1300 individuals on a Pacific island of some three square miles in size. This population had been there for some thousands of years, a meme pool in total isolation but nevertheless viable. Only contact with European missionaries finally destroyed it. However, much smaller meme pools like those of the Pitcairn mutineers or the Californian Yahi isolate (Diamond [13], [14]), numbering only some dozens of founding individuals, are frequently subject to a form of cultural decay rather analogous to genetic load (Muller [28]), which might be termed `memetic load’.
Benzon [3] presents an interesting scheme for the evolution of civilisations through four `cognitive ranks‘ of paradigmatic sophistication, namely 1 – preliterate, 2 – literate but non-numerate, 3 – numerate/algorithmical/scientific, and finally 4 – computational/data manipulative. Each of these is postulated to increase its memetic complexity in a sigmoidal manner, before a transition to the next rank. This analysis suggests many interesting lines of research, for instance in how cognitive rank transition may correspond to paradigm shift in science(Kuhn [22]) or to sociological phenomena.
In summary, memetics suggests many new possibilities for the analysis of civilisations. The state of modern Western civilisation, and how it has changed over time, are primary concerns for modern Continental philosophers. Therefore a discussion of how memetics relates to Continental philosophy is relevant at this point.

AuthorDerek Gatherer
2018-08-21T17:23:37+00:00 August 1st, 2002|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 27|0 Comments